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Blitz! Football’s Most War-torn Word

The bloody history of one of football's greatest words. As a fan of the Buffalo Bills-the only team to go to four Super Bowls in a row, and the...

The bloody history of one of football's greatest words.

As a fan of the Buffalo Bills-the only team to go to four Super Bowls in a row, and the only team to lose four in a row-Super Bowl weekend is always a little bittersweet. Did I say "bittersweet"? I meant "as pleasant as a fork in my brain." The fact that the team hasn't even made the playoffs in 10 years does little to soothe the pain.

Despite my post-traumatic Bills disorder (and disturbing pieces like Malcolm Gladwell's "Offensive Play: How Different are Dogfighting and Football?"), I do like watching football, and I'll be glued to the TV like the rest of America on Sunday. But my mind grapes are always on words, and football has plenty of intriguing ones. "Fumble," "touchdown," "sack," and "out with a groin" are all worth a look, but the most interesting history belongs to "blitz," which entered English through two common venues: other languages and the lingo of war.

It all started with the German word "blitzkrieg," which means "lightning war" and gained fame in the deadliest way possible: the fast and violent air raids of the Nazis. The earliest known English use, captured by the Oxford English Dictionary, is from 1939: "In the opening stage of the war all eyes were turned on Poland, where the German military machine was engaged in Blitz-Krieg...with a view to ending as soon as possible." "Blitz" was used quickly, and perhaps simultaneously, as an abbreviation/synonym, as evidenced by uses in 1939 ("Formal committee chairmen must have known how the poor Poles felt when the German blitzkrieg suddenly started ‘blitzing' around their ears yesterday noon") and 1940 ("Blitz bombing of London goes on all night").

Like so many other war words-including "basket case," "undermine," "triumph," "volunteer," "gung ho," "skedaddle," and "fubar"-"blitz" spread from the killing fields to surprising areas. "Blitz" has frequently been used for ad campaigns, and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces that sense back as far as 1948. Hunter S. Thompson used it that way in Hell's Angels in 1966: "The Angels' publicity blitz was in high gear." "Blitzed" has meant drunk or high since the sixties, and "blitzing" is used (rarely) to refer to scoring well on a test and scooping (in the journalism sense), plus almost any kind of aggressive or fast assault.

Of course, the most commonly used meaning of "blitz" today is the football sense, which has been out there since the early sixties. The OED defines it as "A charge by one or more defensive backs into the offensive backfield, esp. to prevent or disrupt a passing play." A 1963 quote shows "blitz" is one of several terms for similar tactics: "Red-dogging answers to many names: storm, blitz, shooting, stunting." The lexical Darwinian struggle that sees some words flourish while others flounder certainly favored "blitz," maybe because it just sounds as violent as a linebacker on a rampage.

In terms of football-ology, I don't have anything beyond a layman's understanding of the blitz. To me, it means "open season on the quarterback!" and not much else. (A 1966 OED quote offers more definition: "surprise defensive maneuver where one or more linebackers and/or defensive backfield men charge across line of scrimmage after ball carrier.") Though announcers and fans love the blitz, it often backfires, leaving open receivers to pick up huge gains. My metric thimble-load of blitz knowledge was picked up in Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, which I can't recommend enough.

Given the etymological roots-lightning war-and the tragic toll of blitzing in World War II, "blitz" was a natural for the ultra-violence of football. The patron comedian of word nerds, George Carlin summed up the intimate relationship between war and football in a famous routine: "In football the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line."

If it seems wrong that words for such horrific acts of violence are part of the lexicon of a game, well...that's the way the lexical cookie crumbles-or should I say "ameliorates." Amelioration is the process that gradually softens words. The softening is dramatic when war words are involved, but it happens all around the lexical landscape. For example, "enthusiasm" originally meant "Possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy; an occasion or manifestation of these." That's a lot more enthusiastic than its current sense, which mostly describes motorcycle enthusiasts and comic-book enthusiasts whose zeal doesn't have quite the same Biblical flavor.

In the case of "blitz," amelioration might be a good thing-or a sign of a good thing at least. I'd rather have safeties blitzing my quarterback than Nazis blitzing my city any day.

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